Characterization part two – writing subtle emotions and reactions

Most writers find it easy to connect with flamboyant emotions, such as hate, anger, desire, and adoration. However, emotions have “volume,” ranging from soft to loud. Today we are looking at emotions we need to show with less noise.

mood-emotions-1-LIRF09152020Volume control is a crucial part of the overall pacing of your story. “Loud” deafens us and loses its power when it’s the only sound. However, like the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the entire range of volume can be effectively used to create a masterpiece.

Subtle reactions have power when contrasted against more forceful displays of emotion.

Low-key thoughts and feelings can go almost unnoticed. Under the surface, positive or negative vibes give us a rounded view of a character, making them less two-dimensional, a more natural person.

We’re all aware of one positive emotion that can go bad – love. When love is reciprocated, it’s a positive feeling. We all enjoy a good love story.

However, when love starts out with promise and then goes terribly wrong, you have the makings of a deep, dark story filled with possibilities. Anger, despair, revenge—these can be loud and also be subtle, brooding.

Maas_Emotional_Craft_of_FictionDark emotions, such as depression, can be shown through a character’s reactions to things that once pleased them. Perhaps they no longer find beauty in the things they once enjoyed.

What about lighter emotions? The way we feel joy ranges from mild to overwhelming, from a slight smile to an experience so profound it brings tears to one’s eyes.

Subtle emotions don’t stand out and grab the reader. But when they’re swimming just under the surface, they have impact. Subtleties color and shape the reader’s opinions about the story and the characters.

One negative aspect of our human character is our tendency to experience an uncharitable emotion known as schadenfreude. We all go through it on a personal level every now and then. Some people take great joy in it, gaining a sense of superiority. But most of us are embarrassed to admit to it.

Small, quiet emotions linger and leave an impression but are hard to articulate. It helps to include small indicators of mood such as:

  1. Anguish
  2. Anxiety
  3. Competence
  4. Confidence in their friends
  5. Cooperation
  6. Courage
  7. Decisiveness
  8. Defeat
  9. Defensiveness
  10. Depression
  11. Discovery
  12. Ethical Quandaries
  13. Group ethics
  14. Happiness
  15. Inadequacy
  16. Indecision
  17. Individual moral courage
  18. Jealousy
  19. Paranoia
  20. Powerlessness
  21. Purposefulness
  22. Regret
  23. Resistance
  24. Revelation
  25. Satisfaction
  26. Self-confidence
  27. Serenity
  28. Strength
  29. Success
  30. Sufficiency
  31. Temptation
  32. Trust
  33. Unease
  34. Weakness

These attributes are rarely spelled out, but they color how the characters interact with each other.

Some positive emotions can be more intense, yet not overpowering. Those moments can be shown by an immediate physical reaction combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

Severe emotional shock strikes us with a one-two-three punch: the disbelief/OMG moment, followed by knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!” which is sometimes followed by disassociation.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alVisceral reactions are involuntary—we can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding. We can pretend it didn’t happen or hide it, but we can’t stop it. An internal physical gut reaction is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on.

We use the same one-two-three trick when describing a mild experience as we do with louder emotions.

Start with the visceral response. There will be an instant reaction. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut-punch, butterflies … how do you respond to internal surprises?

Emotions are felt in the chest in varying degrees, from a slight warmth or chill to a stronger heart-pounding sensation. But we’re keeping it subdued here.

Follow the visceral up with a thought-response. Whatever your style and word choices are, showing the characters’ joy or dismay makes them human. If it is a mild reaction, give it a moderate thought response. Showing small moments of relatable happiness or displeasure makes our protagonist more sympathetic.

Third, finish up with body language. That is how emotions hit us. We feel the shock and then experience the mental reaction as we process the event. Our body language reflects these things.

What if you are writing a story where one of the antagonists eventually becomes part of the protagonist’s inner circle? Including small positive thoughts early on in their narrative can foreshadow that this character may become the ally that turns the tide.

Conversely, when the antagonist begins as part of the protagonist’s inner circle, minor negatives like envy and schadenfreude in their narrative can foreshadow that this character is not what they seem.

ICountMyself-FriendsConflict keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Significant conflicts and emotions are easy to write about. But in real life, our smaller, more internal conflicts frequently create more significant roadblocks to success than any antagonist might present.

Large emotions are easy to visualize. But frequently, in real life, our smaller joys have a longer-lasting impact, and the memory of these can be the impetus that keeps the soldier fighting during the darkest hours.

If we contrast the loud emotions against the soft ones, the reader will experience those emotions as if they are theirs. The story detailed in that book will be more meaningful to them.


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14 responses to “Characterization part two – writing subtle emotions and reactions

  1. Gosh, who wouldn’t have thought that anyway. Damage joy A German word is unique. Now you know what is in the head of a German. Lol Thanks for discussing another part of Characterization, Connie! Best wishes, Michael

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  2. The visceral-thought-body language response to an emotional shock would be played out fully only from a first person or really deep third person point of view. A more distant third person narrator wouldn’t have access to the gut reaction or the thought that follows. They would see only the physical evidence of the process, which may lead to a series of grimaces, winces, frowns, etc.

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  3. This is all good stuff and to anyone who writes or is considering writing “a must read”. Thanks for a great article.

    Liked by 1 person